Tony Benn dies: His leadership hopes were foiled by a selection process that favoured compromise

 

Share

There was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the world looked very different, and people took seriously the possibility that Tony Benn could lead the Labour Party and become prime minister.

Most people become more conservative in middle age than when they were young, but Benn seemed to have entered middle age in his 20s, only to break out into youthfulness at the age of 45.

From 1950 to 1970, he was generally a mainstream Labour MP, more interested in new technology than socialism. He did not join the Tribune group, where the Labour left had congregated since the days of Aneurin Bevan, seemingly because it was too left wing. By the time he finally did join, it was not left wing enough and it split, with Benn and his allies marching off to form the Campaign Group, which was so far to the left that even Bevan would have had qualms about signing up.

Rival politicians were puzzled by Benn’s rebirth, wondering whether it was driven by conviction, calculation, or a combination of the two. He was very ambitious and had his eye firmly on the party leadership. Had he stayed in the political mainstream, he would have had to compete with Denis Healey and other heavyweights. If he had moved to the soft left, he would have been up against the mild mannered but very popular Michael Foot. On the outside left, he had no competitors.

Tony Benn in 1964 Tony Benn in 1964 (PA)
On the left there was an expanding political base for him to draw on, as the post-war consensus fell apart in the crisis of the 1970s. With hindsight, we know that the upshot was a long-lasting Prime Minister from the radical right. But Margaret Thatcher was so unpopular during her first couple of years in office that few people expected her to survive the next general election, and it did not seem impossible that the electorate would turn instead to the radical left.

Before Benn could aim for Downing Street, he needed to claim the Labour leadership, which he was never going to do as long as the leader was chosen in a ballot in which only Labour MPs had the vote. When Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, Benn trailed well behind Callaghan, Foot and Healey in the resulting contest.

When the Labour government fell in 1979, he did not compete for a place in the shadow cabinet, instead focusing on his power base in the national executive. The Bennite strategy was to push through changes to the party rules, creating an electoral college through which MPs, constituency parties and unions would all participate in electing the next leader. They were not aiming for one-member, one-vote ballots: it was in the Bennites’ interests that the votes were controlled by the activists.

Read more: Politicians of every hue pay tribute
Blunkett: He missed his chance to make a difference
Obituary: He embodied the soul of the Labour Party
Andy McSmith: The Tony Benn I knew
He was socialist to the very end
Editorial: His actions damaged causes he championed
Letters: Benn stood up for a fairer society
Twitter remembers Tony Benn

The proposed rule change was put to the Labour conference but was narrowly defeated when a single delegate from the engineers’ union switched sides. The Bennites then scheduled a special conference for January 1981 to rewrite the rules for electing the leader. Seeing what was coming, Callaghan resigned in 1980 to block Benn’s path by ensuring his successor was elected by the MPs.

Benn did not even contest that election, from which Michael Foot emerged as a compromise leader with Denis Healey as his deputy. Instead, he waited for the rules to be changed, then unilaterally challenged Healey.

The challenge, so narrowly lost, proved to be the high point of the Bennite insurgency. In 1982, Benn and his allies lost their hold over the national executive. The party machine then used a boundary change in Bristol to sideline Benn into a marginal seat, which the Tories won in 1983. It took Benn less than year to get back into Parliament in the Chesterfield by-election, but already there was a sense that his last chance had been lost.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Magento Front End Web Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...

Investigo: management accountant

£250 - £300 per day: Investigo: Growing international marketing business requi...

Recruitment Genius: ORM / Online Reputational Consultant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ORM Consultant is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Burning vehicles are seen near the village of Ghajar on Israel's border with Lebanon January 28, 2015  

Israel vs Hezbollah: Why another war is unlikely

Maya Gebeily
Sammie Welch, 23, was given a note praising her parenting skills with Rylan, three  

Praising a stranger for looking after their child isn't kind — it's the parenting equivalent of cat-calling

Sophie Zadeh
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore